The American outpouring of support for Haiti, including from Catholic Americans, should be a source of pride.
In the early days after the 7.0 earthquake flattened Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, killing as many as 200,000 people and leaving some 1 million homeless, Americans reached deep into their wallets to help provide desperately needed food, water, medical supplies and temporary shelter.
Less than a week after the temblor, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), the international aid arm of the U.S. bishops’ conference, which has been in 80 percent Catholic Haiti more than 50 years and has more than 300 employees there, reported it had raised more than $16 million. After a first day pledge of $5 million of aid, it quickly raised its allotment to $25 million.
Americans have a reputation for generosity in the face of disaster, and some analysts believe we’re on track to break all records. That’s no small feat: According to Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy, private donations by Americans totaled about $6.5 billion after Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, and totaled almost $2 billion after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
But the risk with Haiti, as in other disaster zones, is that when the cable news networks pull out their television cameras, we forget to address the poverty that is at the root of much of the suffering.
The truth is that the Haiti earthquake story is not so much one of natural disaster, but of poverty. Of Haiti’s 9 million inhabitants, three-quarters live on less than $2 a day, and half live on less than a dollar a day. One percent of Haitian’s control half the wealth; government corruption is rampant. Residential and commercial construction is shoddy. As columnist David Brooks has noted, a similarly sized earthquake in San Francisco in 1989 killed only 63 people.
What does that mean for us? It means that our commitment to our brothers and sisters in Haiti, only about 750 miles from U.S. shores, must go beyond meeting the immediate crisis.
True, financial aid to Haiti has done very little to this point. By far, U.S. taxpayers have been the biggest government donor worldwide to Haiti, giving some $260 million in 2008 alone. Haiti, with fewer inhabitants than the Chicago metro area, receives more than a billion dollars of foreign aid each year. Where does it all go?
While those numbers offer a cautionary tale, Haiti’s complete devastation, and need for reconstruction literally from the ground up, offers a fresh opportunity to get things right, as much as is possible in a world marked with original sin.
“Hopefully, even in evil God can bring about good,” Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., who has spearheaded ministry to Haitian Catholics in this country, told Our Sunday Visitor. “This tragedy has affected Haitians of all social and economic classes [and may] bring about a new national unity among the Haitian people who have been long divided over class and or political lines.”
For Catholics, the direction is clear. The Catholic Church in Haiti, although now dealt a serious blow in personnel (including the country’s top churchman and dozens of priests and Religious), church buildings, schools, orphanages and medical clinics, is the only institution in the country with credibility demonstrated in recent decades. Giving to agencies like CRS, which coordinates with the local Church, is sure to be a sound investment in the country’s future.